Single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”) are DNA sequence variations that occur when a single nucleotide (A,T,C,or G) in the genome sequence is altered. For example a SNP might change the DNA sequence AAGGCTAA to ATGGCTAA. For a variation to be considered a SNP, it must occur in at least 1% of the population. SNPs, which make up about 90% of all human genetic variation, occur every 100 to 300 bases along the 3-billion-base human genome. Two of every three SNPs involve the replacement of cytosine (C) with thymine (T). SNPs can occur in both coding (gene) and noncoding regions of the genome. Many SNPs have no effect on cell function, but scientists believe others could predispose people to disease or influence their response to a drug.
Although more than 99% of human DNA sequences are the same across the population, variations in DNA sequence can have a major impact on how humans respond to disease; environmental insults such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, and chemicals; and drugs and other therapies. This makes SNPs of great value for biomedical research and for developing pharmaceutical products or medical diagnostics. SNPs are also evolutionarily stable –not changing much from generation to generation –making them easier to follow in population studies.
Scientists believe SNP maps will help them identify the multiple genes associated with such complex diseases as cancer, diabetes, vascular disease, and some forms of mental illness. These associations are difficult to establish with conventional gene-hunting methods because a single altered gene may make only a small contribution to the disease.
Several groups worked to find SNPs and ultimately create SNP maps of the human genome. Among these groups were the U.S. Human Genome Project (HGP) and a large group of pharmaceutical companies called the SNP Consortium or TSC project. The likelihood of duplication among the groups was small because of the estimated 3 million SNPs, and the potential payoff was high.
In addition to the pharmacogenomic, diagnostic, and biomedical research implications, SNP maps are helping to identify thousands of additional markers along the genome, thus simplifying navigation of the much larger genome map generated by researchers in the HGP.